Draft letter from Charles S. Peirce to J. H. Kehler
(Milford, 22.06.1911)



 
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Well, as soon as I had taken my academic degree, I was appointed an aid in the Coast Survey at $15 a month. That was an opportunity to learn my lesson in one science. I managed three years later to take a degree in chemistry, and I was the first in Harvard to take a degree in that science summa cum laude. In the Coast Survey I particularly made myself master of the subject of weights and measures. Later I was appointed to the charge of all the investigations of the Survey into gravity. I got leave

 

 

to go abroad to study European methods of investigating gravity. While I was in Paris, there happened to be a conference of all the European Surveys. It was held in the Palais des affaires étrangères; and I received an invitation to attend the meetings. At the first I attended, the subject of gravity was discussed; and I was taken completely by surprise when the president, Gen. Ibañez, called upon me for my opinion of the work they had been doing. Of course, I was obliged to express my real opinion. The thought they were measuring gravity with errors not exceeding 1 or at most 2 millionths of itself. But the pendulum was swung from

 

 

a brass tripod and I expressed the opinion very decidedly from an examination I had made of the tripod in Geneva that it swayed under the pendulum to an extent which though not directly observable, I had been able to get a notion of the amount of, by measuring how much the part where the pendulum rested would be moored by a horizontal pull of 1 kilo's weight. Whence I concluded that all the values of gravity which they had been publishing during the past ten years were too small by about 1/10000 of themselves, or a hundred times the error they thought they were excluding.

 

Now when you reflect that it takes usually 100 times as much labour of all kinds to reduce an error to 1/10 of its previous amount. That is, if they had in one month succeeded in measuring anything to a millimetre, then it must be expected that a hundred months labor mental and physical would be required to measure the same thing accurately to a tenth of a millimetre; when you remember this you will see how my statement that this error was a hundred times as great as they supposed sounded! Well, the idea was evidently completely new to them and they didn't venture to say much about it. However,

 

the next year they had another meeting in Brussels when three of the members who were supposed to be the most competent reported certain experiments (of the most ridiculous nature in my opinion. For instance, one of them had put a delicate spirit level on the stand of a half-second pendulum and it didn't budge. This really seemed too much like an ostrich sticking his head under the sand. Those delicate levels require nearly a minute to oscillate!). Anyway they reported that "our American colleague," —in brief had found a mare's nest. I did not receive the report

 

of that meeting until nearly a year later within about a fortnight to three weeks of a third meeting. Meantime with the apparatus I had procured abroad, a duplicate of their most approved pattern made for me with the utmost care by the first mechanician of Europe, I had done a lot of work and was by that time perfectly sure that the amount of the error that I had stated in Paris was as nearly as I stated it exactly right. I had had a good safe stand made too and had proved the pendulum swing quicker on that by the calculated amount.

 

So I instantly applied for permission of absence. Well, the people in Washington were awed by the fame of the gentlemen who had reported against me in Brussels. Besides that, there was that stomach-turning jealousy —fough!— to a scientific man who looks upon scientific work as a humble act of worship of his God and his Creator, —it is unspeakable! So the leave of absence was refused me. I was in New York, stationed there by official order. There happened

 

to be at the time over at the Brooklyn Navy Yard or somewhere (I am sure I forget where but near at hand) another Coast Survey fellow who thought he was under some obligation to me, and who was a perfect master of Newspaper English. I sent to him to meet me the next morning at the Century Club (the old 15th St. house). And there he and I concocted half a dozen paragraphs —which my friend copied in his exquisite handwriting,— after we had put our heads together in the composition of them. Then that night I took a coupé so as to be down in Park Row as near midnight —just a bit later— and I would rush

 

into each of the half dozen leading morning papers —and tell the fellow at the desk with an air of great authority "Send that up to the Night Editor, and tell him to put it right in, without fail!" and then I would leave in equal haste. Well the next morning, sure enough, three of the best papers had our paragraph, and among them the Tribune. When I saw that, for the paragraph had almost the tone of an imperative order to be executed at once, I laughed heartily and felt the thing was done. And early —I think it was about noon— I had not a leave of absence but an order to go and represent the

 

Survey. You may believe that I got on board the first steamer. I was landed at Plymouth and travelled right through night and day to Stuttgart where was the meeting. I got to the hotel in the evening during dinner. I knew there were 2 men who believed in me, —or rather 1. The one was Genl. Baeyer the leader of European geodesy. The was a fraction of Mr. Emile Plantamour, who had seen me at work in Geneva. I met Genl. Baeyer and his daughter in the corridor of the hotel as I was being shown to my room and the old General who had been fighting for me all day but really did not know much about the subject was so delighted to see me that he threw his arms round me and kissed me on both cheeks! The next morning

 

I went into the meeting which was a particularly distinguished gathering, several men who were not regular geodesists being among them, as Henri St. Claire Deville —M. Faye— etc. I began with the mathematical theory which I had, in coming across, succeeded in putting into a form in which every man of them could see the correctness of it. Then I described the instrument by which I had automatically registered the instants of the passage of the pendulum over the vertical, while it was swinging on the brass tripod and when it was on a properly stiff support. I had the chronograph sheets

 

with me, and the whole demonstration was complete, and when I sat down each of my three antagonists at Brussels got up one after another and very handsomely admitted that I was entirely right. And from that time I was acknowledged as the head of that small branch or twig of science.

 

 

 

 


Transcription by Carolyn Eisele (2015)
Una de las ventajas de los textos en formato electrónico respecto de los textos impresos es que pueden corregirse con gran facilidad mediante la colaboración activa de los lectores que adviertan erratas, errores o simplemente mejores traducciones. En este sentido agradeceríamos que se enviaran todas las sugerencias y correcciones a sbarrena@unav.es
Proyecto de investigación "Charles S. Peirce en Europa (1875-76): comunidad científica y correspondencia" (PIUNA 2012-15)

Fecha del documento: 1 de junio 2015
Última actualización: 2 de noviembre 2016

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